Texas Couple Exonerated 25 Years After Being Convicted of Lurid Crimes That Never Happened

The 1992 prosecution of Fran and Dan Keller came amid the mass hysteria known as the Satanic Panic. The couple was formally exonerated Tuesday in Austin.

Fran and Dan Keller sign their exoneration papers Photo: Jana Birchum

Twenty-five years after they were convicted of a crime that never happened, Fran and Dan Keller were formally exonerated on June 20 in Austin, Texas.

The couple’s prosecution in 1992 was part of a wave of cases across the country amid an episode of mass hysteria known as the Satanic Panic. Beginning in the 1980s, accusations flew that the childcare industry had been infiltrated by bands of Satanists hell-bent on brainwashing and sexually abusing young children. The Kellers’ exoneration closes a decadeslong chapter of profound injustice for a couple that paid an exceptionally high price for the credulousness of local law enforcement.

“I still can’t believe it’s happening,” Fran, now 67, said on Tuesday morning while driving with her husband to sign the legal paperwork. She’s still wary; they’ve been waiting for this day for so long she isn’t yet sure it is real. “I guess I’m just tired of having to hang on for so long.”

Dan, 75, is slightly more upbeat — he always thought this day would come. He recalled a sleepless night in prison in 1995 when he said he heard God. “He said, ‘You’re going home, but I have some things to sort through first.’” Dan said he slept soundly that night. “We have to try to not have doubt in our life.”

The exoneration is the first for the nascent conviction integrity unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office under the new DA, Margaret Moore. Court documents filed Tuesday announced that there is “no credible evidence” against the Kellers. Moore said she personally reviewed the case and believes exoneration “to be a just outcome.”

Fran and Dan Keller were each sentenced to 48 years in prison for the alleged sexual assault of a 3-year-old girl who was an occasional drop-in at their home daycare center on the rural outskirts of Austin. The child initially accused Dan of spanking her “like daddy” used to, but under intense and repeated questioning by her mother and a therapist, the story morphed to include claims of rape and orgies involving children. From there, the number of children alleging abuse increased and the accusations grew even more lurid and confounding: The Kellers had sacrificed babies; they held ceremonies in a local graveyard; they put blood in the children’s Kool-Aid; Fran cut off the arm of a gorilla in a local park; they flew the children to Mexico to be sexually assaulted by military officials.

When I began reinvestigating the case in 2008 for the Austin Chronicle, I was stunned to learn that police and prosecutors who had worked the case back in the early ’90s still believed some of the most outrageous allegations leveled against the Kellers. The Austin Police Department refused to release its investigative report on the case, forcing the Chronicle to take the agency to court. We ultimately won the right to full, unredacted access.

After reading the report, it was not hard to understand why the department had fought to keep it secret. It was an ALL-CAPS, run-on-sentence fever dream full of breathless accusations and absent any actual investigation that could prove or disprove the claims. On multiple occasions, the lead investigator took the girl who accused the Kellers to lunch at McDonald’s before setting out for drives in the neighborhood where she would point out locations: Yes, she had been abused there; yes, she recognized the cemetery where the Kellers had killed and buried babies; yes, many of the residents of the quiet neighborhood were in on the hi-jinx. Not once did investigators question the child’s statements.

My reinvestigation of the Keller case turned up evidence that would ultimately lead to their release from prison. The only vaguely physical evidence that tied the couple to any wrongdoing was the testimony of a young emergency room doctor named Michael Mouw, who had examined the girl and concluded there was damage to her vaginal area that could be the result of sexual abuse. As it turned out, the doctor was wrong. Mouw told me that not long after the Kellers were convicted, he attended a medical conference where he learned that what he had interpreted as signs of abuse were nothing more than a normal variant of female genitalia.

Mouw’s medical opinion had fundamentally changed, offering the Kellers an avenue to challenge their conviction. During a hearing in the summer of 2013, he unequivocally stated that there was no doubt that the child’s genitalia was normal and that he’d gotten it wrong when he examined her in 1991. He said that he tried to reach out to the Austin Police Department after he realized his error but was rebuffed by the detective, who was “convinced they were guilty.”

After the 2013 hearing, DA Rosemary Lehmberg — who had been head of the office’s child abuse unit at the time of the Kellers’ prosecution — ultimately agreed that the couple had not received a fair trial, and they were released shortly before Christmas that year. While there was no doubt the couple would not be retried, over the intervening years, Lehmberg declined to take the final step and exonerate them, claiming to my former editor that she could not “find a pathway to innocence” for the Kellers. She was essentially trying to prove a negative — seeking evidence that would prove a crime never happened.

Without a formal exoneration, the Kellers struggled to rebuild their lives. They were still saddled with a conviction for sexual assault of a child, which made it nearly impossible to find work or a place to live. Without an income, they had to scrape by with the help of family and food stamps, and they have not been able to get the kind of medical attention they need for health issues prompted in part by abuses they suffered in prison.

The court filing Tuesday should pave the way for the Kellers to collect roughly $1.7 million each in state compensation for the 21 years they spent behind bars.

Still, the outcome should not be considered a victory for the criminal justice system. With a few notable exceptions, the law enforcement officials in Austin — police and prosecutors, as well as the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals — failed the residents of the city and more importantly the Kellers by accepting the shocking allegations on their face and abdicating their duty to seek the truth of the matter.

If it weren’t for the dogged support of people like Mouw and attorney Keith Hampton — who has spent more than six years toiling on the case for free in an effort to bring about this exoneration — the Kellers would still be in prison, and that is where they would have died.

Contrary to what many people might think, you don’t have a right not to be convicted of a crime you did not commit. For the most part, the Constitution is silent on this point. Instead, the focus is on whether a person received a fair trial. Did you have at least minimally competent lawyers? Were you afforded the ability to cross-examine witnesses against you? If so, then your conviction — even for a crime that never happened — should stand. Once a person is convicted, the system works only to reinforce that outcome. That remains the reality for untold thousands who sit innocent behind bars today.

“I’m very happy for them, and this is huge for the ultimate resolution of this case,” Hampton said of the Kellers. “We can’t give them their 21 years back, but we are doing everything else we can to restore them. When we finally do that, then they’ll be in a position to forgive us for what we as a society did to them.”

Top photo: Fran and Dan Keller sign their exoneration paperwork in Austin, Texas, on June 20, 2017.

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